I'm worldbuilding a medieval fantasy which I try to keep as realistic as possible. In my world, fantasy races are subspecies of the humans, which I define as compared to humans:

  • Humans (same as us)
  • Orcs: much stronger, much taller, less intelligent, worst dexterity
  • Elves: smartest, better dexterity, better eyesight, somewhat weaker
  • Dwarves: somewhat stronger, somewhat shorter, worse dexterity,worse eyesight
  • Gnome: best dexterity, best eyesight, weakest, shortest, least intelligent
  • etc

I assuming level of technology something akin to early middle ages. There is no gunpowder. Metal is expensive.

Armor varies from heavy padding for the poorest levies, leather for the richer, plate for the knights, and cuirasses for the elite. Full plate has not been invented and metal is very expensive anyway.

My story is about human commander in a remote outpost who due to lack of human troops wants to hire gnomes, which are cheap and plentiful.

Gnomes have excellent eyesight and could be taught to be very accurate. However they could only use recurve bows with draw weights fit for hunting, unlike heavy warbows used by stronger races, due to their weak upper body muscles. Could their accuracy compensate for their lack of strength and make them effective on the battlefield?

Addendum #1:

The commander plans to use them as mounted cavalry, mostly for scouting, harassment & hit and run tactics.

Addendum #2:

Hunting bows are usually lower draw weights, because you are mostly stalking the prey, warbows use larger draw weight because they need to penetrate the armor. My assumption is that gnomes could use draw weights which is half of human draw weight. To put some numbers humans would use draw weights of ~120lbs, Orcs ~200lbs, Elves ~100lbs, Dwarves ~140lbs.

Addendum #3:

Gnomes would use small ponies something like Shetland Ponies, which are relatively cheap and are not well suited for adults of other races.

shetland pony


  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jan 25, 2020 at 12:13

8 Answers 8


Yes or no, depending on how accurate you make them shoot and your other forces.

If your gnomes are able to shoot out eyeballs or kneecaps at range and your foes don't have shields, then you're good. Not a lot of draw force/body penetration is required to issue a serious wound, especially around the head and neck. Assuming you're close enough, an arrow thrown by hand could still incapacitate someone when hit in the eye. Other parts of the body have similar vulnerabilities. For example, kneecap shots. An arrow through the knee would be a crippling lifetime injury and remove that soldier from probably all future battles.

However, if your opponents are smart and have shields, you're boned. Assuming they are aware of how weak your archers are, they could fashion very large and lightweight shields to protect themselves until they're in melee range and make themselves almost entirely immune to your physically weak archers.

If bow-gnomes are your entire fighting force, then you're screwed, however, against light infantry, especially people without shields, they could be very effective assuming they're good enough to consistently land lethal hits.

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    $\begingroup$ Good catch with the light shields. No they are not the whole force, there are humans from the garrison. The commander plans to use them as mounted cavalry, mostly for scouting, harassment & hit and run tactics. $\endgroup$
    – loxerih164
    Jan 21, 2020 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ Honestly, though, it's more no than yes. They can be useful to some extent, but not as core forces. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2020 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ I used to answer questions on Worldbuilding like you, but then I took an arrow in the knee. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2020 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ They'd make for excellent skirmishers and sound like nightmarishly dangerous guerilla/ambush forces, though. Play to your strengths, not your weaknesses. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 8:39
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    $\begingroup$ "[...] almost entirely immune to your physically weak archers." - You might be underestimating the power of a 60lbs bow. I used to train with one and from my experience, the targets that it wouldn't penetrate were too heavy to carry around as equipment, let alone scaled up to pavise size. Then again, not being able to see what you're shooting at really hurts your accuracy. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 12:26

Probably not. Your lack of range is going to be punishing, unless you can also provide gnome cavalry. Stronger and better equipped enemy archers will shoot up your little peeps before they can get into range, most likely.

They could of course use crossbows. The rate of fire will be lower, but using suitable mechanical aids the gnome's relative lack of strength can be compensated for. In a defensive role, a fortification, uh, gnomed by your little sharpshooters armed with heavy siege crossbows could present a pretty serious threat to any incoming force.

  • $\begingroup$ Solution to the lower rate of fire on crossbows is to have several of them, pre-loaded and ready to shoot. Fire all your shots and then hide to reload, or you have a 2-gnome team where one is the shooter and the other continually reloads. You could even do A-team/B-team tactics, where half the gnomes are shooting while the other half loads, and swap back and forth to keep up a continuous fire. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman I don't think such tactics were ever used on the battlefield in real life, FWIW. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime gnomes didn't exist in real life either, FWIW ;) $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe not with crossbows, but I believe it was standard practice with early rifles that also took a while to load. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ @CAEJones it was the reloader/shooter pattern I was specifically referring to as being unusual, rather than volley fire which was indeed used historically pre-gunpowder. Apologies for being unclear. $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 15:36

Yes, but they can't be used as traditional medieval archery units.

In medieval wars, standard tactics for archers was sending volleys high into the air without much targeting (as precise targeting at that range is nearly impossible due to the nature of arrows). There will be no substitute for archer's strength in this case. Weaker archers would have smaller range and could send fewer volleys towards the advancing enemy, compared to regular strength archers. At close range, when targeting is possible, they can be more deadly, but that would not likely be able to compensate for the lack of firepower in an open field.

In a strong defensive position, the situation is different. Assume that your unit is defending a fort and attacking enemy has to spend time in a range where precise targeting is possible. In this case, good precision can be devastating. Unless the enemy is wearing full armor, your gnomes should be able to pick less protected spots on enemy soldiers' bodies. Lack of penetrating power in this case can be more than compensated by precision.

  • $\begingroup$ As a side note, the archers would shoot over their own infantry and they wouldn't really see the enemy and they wouldn't be able to target precisely. They would be only able to judge the general distance. $\endgroup$
    – Sulthan
    Jan 22, 2020 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ I have watch a video that affirm the opposite (french one) That video said that on the battlefield, your arrow are precious and any basic solder will have an helm even the poors, as such volleys of arrow like seen in movies are not realistics and would waste one of your arrow and you have a quite finite number of them $\endgroup$
    – Walfrat
    Jan 22, 2020 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Walfrat Hmm, I think that depends on the arrow supply for a particular battle. Historical accounts for some battles suggest very high arrow use. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jan 22, 2020 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ High volleys are a thing of the movies - they look impressive, but they simply don't do much. It would be a thorough waste of arrows with little effect. It may have been done in extreme rarity in the hopes of hurting morale, but that would be exceedingly wasteful. Arrows lose a lot of their power in flight and a long flight time would render it unable to penetrate even basic armors, so sometimes used against peasant levies but still a rare tactic. Also, "precise targeting" isn't a thing with arrows against erratically moving targets - finding gaps in armor is sheer numbers, not skill. $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2020 at 17:42
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    $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi the question here is how many shots the archers can get before advancing enemy would overrun them. For an English longbow, looks like 100m is the limit of "direct targeting", anything farther than that would be a "high volley". Heavy infantry would cross 100m in one minute or so, while galloping cavalry can do it in seconds. Trained archer can release about 12 arrows a minute. By historical accounts, English archer was supposed to carry 48 arrows into battle, and had to resupply when he's out. I don't see how an archer can expend all 48 if he's limited to direct shots. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jan 23, 2020 at 17:53

This question has a lot of assumptions in it.

Accuracy on the battlefield isn't a thing. Archers aim into the air and hope to hit something. Draw weight isn't terribly important either for this purpose. It's all about speed and technique. Your archers would be just as effective as anything else, and would have an easier time hiding from return shots. As long as your archers can nock, draw and loose quickly and make sure their shots vaguely go towards the thing you want to kill, they should be useful.

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    $\begingroup$ This assumes massed Medieval archers using arrows as indirect weapons, which is manifestly not all archery in all times. For example, nomadic steppe cavalry archers used the bow and arrow as an accurate, direct fire weapon. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Jan 22, 2020 at 5:37
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    $\begingroup$ Not quite. Even for medieval english warfare firing en masse style of archery there was a some real training and technique for accuracy. As you suggest, they didn't really try to hit specific targets when firing en masse, but they had to at least hit the enemies formation, which is harder than it sounds. Further, even in medieval English warfare there was call to hit specific targets with direct file when they approached closer, and other styles of archery focused on that direct fire technique as RenJohn pointed out. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_longbow#Use_and_performance $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ This answer also rather ignores the fact that power is a requirement to penetrate armour - those English longbows had draw weights approaching 200 pounds. $\endgroup$
    – walrus
    Jan 23, 2020 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ It's not just a requirement for penetration, it's one for total firepower. The stronger the bow and archer, the longer it can shoot, the longer the effective range, and the more arrows you can get on target as the enemies close.. $\endgroup$ Jan 23, 2020 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @walrus And still won't penetrate armor unless standing right in front of you. And even then, not really thanks to the leather underneath. $\endgroup$
    – Trevor
    Jan 23, 2020 at 16:47


Gnomes are specified as being the "least intelligent" race - even compared to orcs, who are merely "less intelligent" - and the commander wants to hire them to undertake scouting, harassment and hit-and-run tactics? Not a chance. The least intelligent troops get handed a spear and a shield and drilled extensively in the hopes that given enough time they can form a line of infantry. The most intelligent troops are used as scouts or sent on independent operations regarding initiative and flexibility - such as hit-and-run operations where tactical judgement regarding when to hit and when to start running is critical. The gnomes do not qualify.

Other issues:

As correctly noted by Failus Maximus in comments, mounts were/are expensive. Ponies will probably be cheaper than horses, but that does not make them cheap. Any saving in hiring gnomes (who are cheap because they are stupid) would be more than offset by putting them on ponies.

A further problem with using gnomes as mounted archers results from the unavoidable loss of accuracy involved in shooting from an unstable platform such as a pony. No matter how good an archer is, they will not be as accurate loosing an arrow from atop a mount - especially one in motion - as they would be with their feet on the ground.

Finally, the gnome bows will have less range than everyone else's bows and ponies cannot wear much barding. The outcome of a gnome skirmish charge does not look good - while the gnomes are closing to the range they can accurately shoot from, both the gnomes and their ponies will be shot up; once the gnomes get into the range they can turn across the enemy's front and shoot a few enemies, then they take more arrows without being able to shoot back while they ride away. That is best case - if the gnomes' enemy has mounted archers of any other race on horses then the horses can outpace the ponies, allowing the human/elf/orc archers to stay within their own range and outside the gnomes' range and pick off gnomes and ponies at their leisure.

One possible use...

The only potential saving grace for the gnomes is the fact that they have the "best eyesight". If this means that they have significantly superior night vision to the other races then they can rule the night in a pre-gunpowder era. Being stupid is still a disadvantage for conducting this sort of operation, but harassment attacks against enemy camps at night by sharpshooters who can see clearly when their enemies are effectively blind could destroy enemy morale and slow their rate of advance in short order. However, the gnomes should leave their ponies some distance away and conduct such sorties on foot - a camouflaged gnome would be hard to see or hear at night, but ponies would both raise the gnomes' silhouettes and make more noise. Planning and preparation for such operations is crucial to success (including lots of rehearsals) - the planning will probably be the province of a human commander or an exceptional gnome.


Your gnomes could definitely act as raiders / partisan terrorists: attacking small communities on enemy lands, killing a farmer or two, setting fire to everything and quickly escaping on their tiny ponies before a response is launched doesn't need armor-piercing archery or a whole lot of intelligence to pull off.

They could also be utilized for guerrilla tactics, to disrupt supply lines and logistics of enemy armies, and they might make decent forward scouts depending on the severity of their intelligence handicap. Again, in small random skirmishes and ambushes behind enemy lines, lead by smarter-than-average gnomes or regular-smartness humans, their accuracy could very well make up for their lack of strength and tactical sense.

Or, if you want to make them formidable archers by any standards, give them and only them access to a recent Gnomish innovation: the ancient-chinese-style, butt-triggered recurve crossbow, utilized with the full-body seated drawing technique for maximum draw weights.

Qin dynasty crossbow

This will basically double or triple the draw weight your gnome troopers can handle, while allowing for the ease of use that comes with a crossbow design. The long power stroke of the design will further bring it closer to the warbows used by the other races in efficiency, even exceeding some of them in sheer energy transfer.

No one wants to screw with a tiny, angry, slightly mentally impaired guy in a pointy red hat, brandishing a crossbow roughly as wide as he is tall, drawn to 150 pounds, with a power stroke of 20 inches. Especially if his pony-mounted buddies aren't far behind.


Up to a point, draw weight contributes heavily to higher accuracy. A higher draw weight means faster arrow speed, which leads to a flatter trajectory and greater accuracy with less need to adjust for range, less room for the arrow to be affected by wind, less chance for the target to move, etc. If the draw weight is too much, the archer's muscles get tired too quickly and they aren't physically able to shoot as accurately as with a lower-powered bow, but a stronger archer with a higher powered bow will have a higher accuracy ceiling than a weaker archer with a slower bow and better eyesight.

  • $\begingroup$ But comparatively weak hunting bows can be very accurate as well. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Jan 22, 2020 at 11:28
  • $\begingroup$ Not at distances, and definitely not to the degree that a more powerful bow can. It's true that for a hunter being able to actually hold the bow long enough to aim/wait for the better shot is better than a few more pounds of draw weight, but better yet would be to be stronger and able to handle the greater weight. Other factors also apply to arrow speed-longer draw length also helps, but that's not in the gnomes' favor either. They're going to have a hard time being super-effective archers $\endgroup$ Jan 22, 2020 at 16:43

Yes: poison.

Your gnomes could specialize in poisons that are particularly suited to use on arrows and that have a variety of effects tuned to specific combat objectives. In fact their skill with poisons could be a central part of their lore. With poisoned arrows, accurate shots could be far more important that forceful ones. Assuming their targets have at least some exposed skin (or relatively easily penetrated armor), skill in hitting that would be sufficient to deliver lethal or disabling doses of poison. Tactics might change too (and become a another signature of your gnomes): conventional volleys — though still potentially useful at shorter ranges — would be less important than sneaking up close enough to reach targets (with some accuracy). Individual gnomes could develop reputations for stealthy approach to their foes.


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